The local political cauldron has been in ebullition since March 24th when the Prime Minister announced an electoral reform program.
The apparent reason for the reform proposed is to deal with the issue flagged by the United Nations Human Rights Commission regarding the requirement for candidates at an election to decline their ethnic/religious belonging based on a population census of 1972. As it is known, this requirement gave rise to the Best Loser System (BLS) in 1965 as a way of ensuring adequate ethnic representation in the National Assembly.
The proposed electoral reform proposals have become the launching pad for new political alignments. Paul Bérenger, leader of the MMM, in trying to reach out for an arrangement with the Prime Minister, Navin Ramgoolam, and Labour, in the light of the proposals, has distanced himself from the ‘Remake’, an alliance he had forged with the MSM in a bid to unseat, without success, the Labour-PMSD government after the MSM walked away from government in the context of the MedPoint scandal.
It is being claimed that Bérenger’s main focus is to secure the generous dose of proportional representation (PR) being offered under the proposed reforms of a voting system currently centred on the First Past the Post system (FPTP) along with the BLS. He knows that the existing system, coupled with the country’s electoral profile, cannot give a victory to the MMM going singly for elections in current circumstances. But that would be possible once the FPTP was combined with a dose of PR. The MMM leader would therefore be willing to join hands to get the necessary amendments made for the PR system to be in place. Moreover, he must be abandoning the ‘Remake’ now for having formed an opinion that he would be more certain to be in power under the new reform proposals than going along with his existing arrangement with the MSM.
On the other hand, Labour has been governing but not with the authority which strong governments are usually endowed with. Many compromises have had to be made to lobbies of all sorts, weakening the overall governance framework of the country. The proposed electoral reforms of 24th March are accordingly tied up to a second layer of political power definition, both of which are expected to go together without the which power sharing between the two major parties will not be well grounded. So, this first layer of reform proposals has, in the eyes of the Labour leader, to go along with a second level of constitutional amendments.
This has not been stated out yet but it is believed that it involves increasing the powers of the President of the Republic so it is he who actually holds sway over the Cabinet and executive decisions. The expectation is that the President in this case would be the Labour leader. That would mean that the plenipotentiary powers of the current Prime Minister are effectively considerably reduced. The view is that if the leader of the MMM were to occupy the position of Prime Minister in the new setup under consideration, he would not be in a position to act in defiance of the President’s will.
This coming together of Labour and the MMM around a project to make major amendments to the Constitution is predicated on the view that the prevailing system does not favour the emergence of “strong” governments capable of taking unpopular but required decisions for “cleaning up” negative influences exerted by distinct lobbies and vested interests. The hoped-for sharing of political power between the two dominant political parties on the local scene in the contemplated scenario is believed to be able to help remove hurdles to necessary reorientation of the affairs of the country in the desired direction without bowing down to ethnic and other lobbies. Naturally, those lobbies which have placed themselves in a position of force under the current system will object to any such changes. It is therefore not expected that going forward will be smooth, the more so as such radical changes in the Constitution will necessarily have to be based on prior explicit popular mandate.
To the extent this arrangement would not give rise to bicephal and conflictual political decision-making and not bring in more woes to the governance structure, proceeding in this direction might be a good idea. It is the reality around this theme that will have to be practically tested beforehand. We have said on previous occasions that no President of the Republic, even if vested with executive powers, will be impregnable unless he commands at all times a loyal majority in the House. This will be true of any arrangement the sort of which is being contemplated currently. Having a parliamentary majority backing up the President under the contemplated arrangement is a must without which it will all go berserk. People will have to be convinced that this is a workable proposition and that many a potential slip twixt the cup and the lip will have been taken care of rigorously.
* Published in print edition on 18 April 2014